Yellow Jackets can’t afford slip up against Virginia

Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson encourages his team during the first half against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., on Nov. 12.
Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson encourages his team during the first half against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., on Nov. 12. The Roanoke Times via AP

Georgia Tech still has goals to reach and Virginia stands in the way.

The Yellow Jackets host the Cavaliers in the final game of the season at Bobby Dodd Stadium. In order for coach Paul Johnson’s team to achieve their new set of goals, they can’t afford to slip up against the Coastal Division’s last-place team.

The game, which is Senior Day for the Yellow Jackets, will start at 12:30 p.m. The game will be shown on the ACC Network.

The Yellow Jackets (6-4, 3-4 ACC) became bowl eligible with last week’s surprising win at Virginia Tech. That means they’ll be returning to the postseason after falling short last year and breaking an 18-year streak.

Johnson has had to convince the players that there’s still plenty at stake before the uniforms are collected and put away for good.

“I don’t think anybody on our team wanted to go 6-6 when the season started,” Johnson said. “You have goals and you try to play for them.”

The preseason goal was to win the Coastal Division. That went out the window with a 1-3 start in the conference.

“My goal is that when it looks like those initial goals are gone, to find a carrot to stick in front of them to say, ‘Here is what we are trying to do now,’ ” Johnson said. “You start out 1-3 in the league, they can figure out you probably aren’t going to win your division, so you keep playing until you are mathematically eliminated.”

Once that happened, Johnson encouraged his team to reach for bowl eligibility and then to aim for a nine-win season. That could happen if the Yellow Jackets run the table, which would mean beating Virginia, Georgia and a bowl opponent.

“I told our team since that point that we have a chance to get to nine wins, which to the best of my recollection in the past 50 years, it has happened eight times,” Johnson said. “That is something special. If you can get to nine wins, it is a pretty successful season. Now, you did not get your goals, but if you look at it realistically, you have to say that is a pretty good year.”

Virginia (2-8, 1-5 ACC) looks like a pushover, but little has come easy to Georgia Tech this year. Virginia won last year’s game 27-21 to break a three-year Georgia Tech winning streak. The Cavs have had a few close calls, losing by a touchdown or less to UConn, Louisville and Wake Forest.

“We have yet to play our best game on offense, defense and special teams all together, so that is the goal,” Johnson said. “We have talked about how we can get to .500 in the conference. That is certainly important to me and I hope it is to them.”

The Georgia Tech defense, coming off perhaps its best game of the year, hopes to again come up with takeaways against a Virginia team that has been agreeable to turning it over. Virginia has 20 turnovers and only 15 takeaways, leaving them last in the ACC at minus-5.

Virginia has also struggled to stop the run. The Cavs rank 12th in rushing defense and allow 179.2 yards per game. That could be good news for a Georgia Tech offense that returns quarterback Justin Thomas and center Freddie Burden, two of the team’s seniors, along with A-back and kick returner J.J. Green.

Georgia Tech will still be without B-back Dedrick Mills, who is serving the final game of his two-game suspension. The Yellow Jackets will likely need another big game from Marcus Marshall, who started at B-back and rushed 19 times for 143 yards and a 56-yard touchdown.

Georgia Tech leads the all-time series 19-18-1. Georgia Tech is 16-7 at home. Johnson is 5-3 against the Cavs.

Virginia at Georgia Tech

  • When: 12:30 p.m., Saturday
  • TV: FOX-54, 12:30 p.m.
  • Radio: WRCG-FM 92.1, 10:30 a.m.